Sunday, June 9, 2013

Of scribes, scriveners, printers, publishers and self-publishing consultants

One of my own passions is history. I'm particularly fascinated by ancient history and the development of writing. Up until very recent times, being able to read and write gave a person a good deal of power. The scribes of ancient Egypt were the most powerful class outside of the royal family. In some ways they even wielded power over the pharaoh since, if he wanted something written, he needed to call a scribe. During the First Century, literacy was a bit more wide spread, but even in
Photo credit dalbera
those better times, in Israel, the scribes, the ones who wrote down the Torah and also did things like contracts and letters carried a great deal of influence. So much so, that Jesus was often faced with opposition by the "scribes and pharisees" since he was challenging their claim of exclusivity on the interpretation of the Law.

During the middle ages, scriveners in the monasteries preserved the literature of earlier days as well as the writings of the times, but they also controlled the access to literature, and many works of antiquity were lost because they were deemed heretical.

A.J. Leibling observed that "Freedom of the press is only guaranteed to those who own one."  Well, today, anyone with a computer owns a press. However, every time the availability of publishing written work became more widespread, society was disrupted. It happened with the printing press. It is happening again with the internet.

For many there is a vested interest in restricting access to the means of fully participating in what Milton called "the free marketplace of ideas." This is not because of some nefarious conspiracy. No, it is quite simpler than that. They are losing their sense of being "special." Therefore, while acknowledging or even embracing indie publishing, they continue to try to make it seem mysterious, complex, expensive and something you certainly cannot do on your own.

Of course, many of these voices for "quality" products also have a financial interest. Frequently, people will send me links to blog articles about how you need to hire all sorts of specialists to create your book. Editors, cover designers, formatters, publicists and the list goes on. Then they list costs ranging from several hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. And I always notice - surprise, surprise - they offer those services or sell space on their blogs to people who do.

And the mantra they keep chanting is "Quality Sells." Okay, let's butcher that sacred cow once and for all. A McDonalds sits next to a high end steakhouse. Guess which one has more customers and makes more money every year.

Now, does anyone seriously think McD's sells millions of burgers a day because they are of a higher quality than that served in the high priced steakhouse? Of course not. They sell something that is tasty, filling, forgettable and cheap. People go to the steakhouse on special occassions if at all. People go to McDonalds on a regular basis. Now, is anyone going to brag about having dinner at McD's? Not likely. But they are very likely going to spend more money every year under the Golden Arches than at the steakhouse.

Now, the home of the Big Mac could produce a higher quality product. They could grind their own hamburger from top sirloin steak, hire chefs from leading culinary schools to staff their restaurants, cook each burger to order perfectly and slowly and serve them on fine china. However, you would not get a McChicken Deluxe for $1.79.

If you need a top quality product to be successful, why is it, that, the most successful brands are those that make things that just work, but are probably not top of the line. Indeed, the closer you get to the top of the line, the fewer buyers you have.

Does this mean, you don't spend any time on your book? Of course, not. However, spend the time where it counts - writing the book. If you want to spend money, take some good quality classes in story construction, characterization, and basic writing.

Go back to McDonalds. They don't spend a lot of money on high priced stuff, but they spend millions on research into what people like to eat. They produce something that appeals to that taste. It might not be the best for you, but it is something people (not everyone, but a large number of people) want to eat. They also know that people want something they can afford and get in a hurry. In other words, they spend time and money on the content more than the packaging.

Their "quality" is in giving people what they want at a price they can afford. However, these consultants and gurus want self-publishers to spend thousands on things that, the average reader would not even notice, or if they do, it doesn't impact them enough to not buy the book if the price is right.

The problem with this is that every dollar you spend on production has to be made up somewhere. That means raising the price. Indie publishers have an edge over traditional publishers because we can work with low overhead. They can't. However, many are squandering that advantage by buying top sirloin and hiring cordon bleu chefs. Is someone going to be willing to spend the same amount of money on one of my books, if I'm unknown to them, as, say, Stephen King? Probably not. However, if my book is half the price of a novel by Stephen King, say about the price of a loaf of bread instead of that of a meal at a fast-food restaurant (I must be hungry), then they may be willing to take a chance on me. And if they have read my books and like them, they might download several books instead of just one.

In other words, like McDonalds, by controlling my expenses I not only keep a good profit margin, but I can also offer more value to my reader. Is my novel that I edited myself absolutely error free? Probably not. Neither would it be if I had it edited professionally. I might catch 98 percent of the errors. The pro might catch 99. If the story is good, and the number of errors are low, then the reader will come back for more.

I can make a good cover by spending 20 bucks or so at a stockphoto site finding a single image that conveys the idea of the story and add some text to it using a program like GIMP, which can be downloaded for free. Going to a professional cover artist might get me a cover that is a little bit better, but will it be enough better to justify the cost. Always think in these terms: "Will this cover/editing/formatting/etc. produce more sales than if I did it myself? If so, will it produce enough extra sales to cover the cost and show a profit.

If you spend $100 for cover design, $500 for editing, $200 for someone to format and upload your book (all of which you can probably do if you are willing to work) and you are selling your book at $2.99 on Kindle select, you will need to sell close to 400 units before you even see a profit. Do you honestly believe that spending that amount of money will produce 400 sales you would not have had otherwise? From a marketing perspective, that 800 dollars would be better spent on advertising.

So, lets lay this myth to rest right now. Quality, in the sense of spending a lot of money producing a slightly more polished product, does not sell, unless you can achieve it economically enough to give the buyer a good deal. The better the product does not necessarily mean the greater the sales.

If indie publishing is mostly a hobby or a way to publish, and you are not concerned about making money, then spend thousands and either take the loss or deal with  having fewer readers who will likely not even notice all the great editing or cover designs.

On the other hand, if  you consider this a business, you are more likely to show a profit in a shorter period of time if you only outsource those things you know you will mess up big time. Otherwise, do as much as possible yourself. That is one of the reasons I'm giving you a series of lessons on self-editing which I will continue next week.


  1. I like your analogy of McDonald's and the steakhouse, Terri. I guess I still have aspirations of being the steakhouse, though, despite all the evidence supporting your position.

    This past month, I've started to read two different indie books from two different authors who are selling very well. They're both free, first-in-series books that have lots of five star reviews and rank well in the Amazon free list (one in the 200s and one in the 2000s). I couldn't finish either of them because of the quality. The first one, an action-adventure, moves from one frenetic scene to the next, with no character development and little to tie the scenes together. The author even put in a statement at the beginning of the book asking readers to be patient and keep reading because the different stories did come together eventually. The second one, a romantic comedy, had so many grammatical errors and repetitious sections, it drove me crazy.

    But the McDonald's crowd has not only been buying these "value meal" books, they've also gone on to read and enjoy the subsequent books in the series.

    I appreciate your editing series, Terri, and am hoping that, for my current WIP, I'll feel confident enough to not hire an editor before publishing. That was the biggest expense for my first book and will probably take me years to recoup. I'm certainly not rich enough to support my publishing as a hobby and it would certainly be nice to be in the black faster.

  2. I'm not saying the story needs to be poor. I like a McDonalds burger and I think the taste compares favorably with most steakhouse burgers. Is the steakhouse burger better? Yes. Is it worth 30 dollars like one I had. Was it 25 dollars better? No.

    But the type of story your described I've seen published by major publishers. It's a classic action adventure story. One actually advertised itself by a famous author as "a speeding locomotive that never slows down." I said, Okay, I don't want to read that one. I don't like the breathless approach. Yet, I got criticized by one reader that I spent "too much time" with the characters and needed more action. I write cozy mysteries. The "action" comes by the detectives interviewing people and looking for clues. It doesn't come from two guys beating each other up. I'm Agatha Christie not Mickey Spillane.

    Some matter of "quality" I've discovered over time are matters of taste. Back to McDonalds. Well, actually Brooks Ranch, a small inexpensive diner in my home town. It serves basic comfort food. It's tasty, clean, friendly and cheap. Well, I had a great meal at a high priced restaurant in San Francisco. I drink iced tea. They had some sort of high end, gourmet blend. Being a tea fancier, I was looking forward to it. It was bitter and left a bad taste in my mouth, but other people were remarking on it's wonderful flavor. Me, I prefered my $1.50 tea at brooks ranch over this $5.00 version at the fancy restaurant. Brooks uses a machine brewed version of your basic Liptons. It costs less for them and for me. It's lower "quality" but I like it better.

    Eventually, I may want the steakhouse. I can't afford it now. Let me switch analogies. Down the road from me there's a highway interchange. A number of travel related businesses, gas stations, etc. have sprung up there.

    About 15 years ago, sitting in a vacant lot next to a gas station for a few hours a day was a Taco Truck. It served tacos and burritos for 99 cents. It only stayed during the lunch hours at the various industrial places in the area. Over time, they extended their hours and added a few new things to the menu. Then one day, I saw they added tables and chairs. A few months later, they put up an awning. A year or two later, they built the awning permanently on the spot and created a place for the truck to pull in behind a take out window. Then about five years ago, they built a restaurant on the site.

    Inside, you can get a nice sit down Mexican dinner, but it's not 99 cents anymore. But you can get the fastfood at a take out window on the side.

    Restaurants in that general location don't last very long. But he's been there five years and doing well. Now, if he had started by taking out a bunch of loans and building a restaurant, he might have gone out of business before he could have seen one penny of profit. After all, he was an unknown quantity. There were some big chain outfits nearby, an AM/PM, a Bobby Salazars, a Dennys down the road just a ways. Subway not too far. He had to have an edge and he had to control costs. His edge was shaved meat (not ground beef) tacos at a low price that a place with a permanent location and roof couldn't match. After he had a thriving clientele he upgraded.

    Too many writers want to set up a full-service restaurant on their first book. They need a taco truck instead.